“It’s a Political Marathon, not a 100-metre Dash” by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

2019/33, 29 March 2019
The Phuea Thai Party’s 27 March announcement that it will form a seven-party coalition with at least 255 seats in the lower house of the Thai parliament, the House of Representatives, is at best a small moral victory for the so-called “democratic alliance” that the party seeks to lead.

While the bold move immediately captured attention and media headlines, it may in fact be the last hurrah of the party set up by fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The 255 seats that this anti-junta group claims to control represent just 51 per cent of the seats in the 500-member House, a very slim majority. It will account for just 34 per cent of the seats in the joint parliamentary sitting of the House and the 250-member Senate that will select Thailand’s next prime minister. To secure the premiership for Phuea Thai candidate Sudarat Keyuraphan with a majority of the 376 votes in that joint sitting, the proposed coalition will need an additional 121 votes. Where will these votes come from?

The Democrat Party, which will hold about 57 House seats, will not join any Phuea Thai-led coalition. Neither will the Bhumjai Thai Party, which will hold about 54 House seats, even though the Phuea Thai Party offered the premiership to its leader.

The Senate will be made up of 250 appointees chosen mainly by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta. The “democratic alliance” is calling for senators, whom the king will soon formally appoint, to have the right to vote as they wish.  After all, it argues, the senators will be representatives of the Thai people – not of the junta.
This is a valid point. Unfortunately, it may be mere wishful thinking.
Who will the senators be?

We do not yet know yet who will be appointed to the Senate, though the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence, supreme commander of the armed forces, army commander, navy commander, air force commander, and police commander will sit in the body on an ex officio basis.

The junta has appointed Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan to head a secret selection committee for senators. In addition to the six individuals mentioned above, this committee will choose 50 persons from a list of 200 applicants representing ten specified professions. It will select a further 194 people from a list of 400 “highly qualified persons, suitable for Senate duties”, compiled by the junta. It will then submit its list of 250 prospective senators to the king, for appointment to a five-year term. The royal appointment will be announced within three days of the Election Commission’s certification of final results of the 24 March elections for at least 475 House seats.

The Election Commission has 60 days to complete this certification. But it now plans to finish the job by 9 May, so that the new parliament can convene its opening session by 24 May.

In the meantime, there may be lawsuits and court decisions, as well as rulings of the Election Commission to disqualify some election winners. In those latter cases, by-elections will be held within 30 days.  These factors help explain why it will be impossible to announce the final results of the polls soon, particularly the results of the apportionment of the 150 party-list seats in the House.

The junta painstakingly dictated the drafting of the 2017 constitution and of the election laws in order to stop the fugitive Thaksin from regaining government power through a Phuea Thai victory at the polls. Its game plan is clear. Before it disbands on the day that a new cabinet is sworn into office, the junta wants to make sure that junta leader and incumbent Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha stays on as the prime minister. The aim is for him to lead a new coalition government to maintain continuity of government policy and the national reforms laid down by the junta after its May 2014 coup.

Naturally the junta will choose for appointment to the Senate only those whom it can trust to “do the right thing” for the country.  The “democratic alliance” condemns this as undemocratic “power succession” on the part of the junta.
The junta counters this criticism by underlining the fact that the 2017 constitution was approved in a national referendum. The proposal to allow the 250 senators to participate in the selection of the prime minister was also approved in the same national referendum.

Winning but no trophy

As widely anticipated, the Phuea Thai Party won the largest number of House seats, 137 out of 350, although it contested only 250 constituencies. Rules governing the apportionment of party-list seats mean that none of those 150 seats will be awarded to the party, however. These rules were designed expressly to limit the size of the Phuea Thai contingent in the parliament. They represent a serious hindrance to the pro-Thaksin party. None of its leading members — including party leader Pol Lt Gen Viroj Pao-in and Sudarat, and party secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai — will be members of the new House of Representatives.

It is a political marathon

At this early stage, calculations of coalition strength must remain imprecise.

The numbers will change, especially when by-elections are required because of disqualifications of election winners.

Worse still, sooner or later there will be defections among elected members of the House from parties in one camp to parties in the opposite camp.  The NCPO’s constitution condones such defections. An elected member of the House expelled from his or her party can join a new party within 30 days without losing his or her seat. Moreover, elected politicians may also receive bribes to vote against their parties’ line in the balloting to select the next Thai prime minister and in votes on major bills before the House.

 The pro-Prayut camp’s likelihood of success means that it will have a stronger attraction for potential defectors than the “democratic alliance”. This reality explains Prayut’s apparent lack of concern in the face of the media frenzy over the debut of the “democratic alliance”. Time is on his side. He can now focus on overseeing preparations for the upcoming coronation of King Vajiralongkorn on 4 May.

Prayut obviously knows that the selection of a new prime minister is a political marathon, not a 100-metre dash. And he is confident that, with the help of his junta, he has enough hidden stamina to win the race.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Lead Researcher for Political and Security Affairs in the ASEAN Studies Centre and a member of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.